It’s getting to be that time of year, as March Madness is here!
At this point of the season we all know who the prohibitive favorites to take home a title are. Both Gonzaga and Baylor have jumped out from the pack and really anyone inside the top 10 has a shot to win it all. But there a few teams lurking just outside mainstream thought that have a great chance to make deep runs in the tournament.
Here’s a look at five sleeper college basketball teams who could wind up winning the national championship this year. If you’re looking for outside the box options in your bracket this year, consider these squads.
At this point, Houston probably shouldn’t be considered a sleeper pick, but there are some out there who don’t know how good the No. 7 Cougars really are. Kelvin Sampson’s squad is for real and can hang at the highest levels of college basketball. A great, two-way squad, Houston ranks sixth in KenPom, and is ninth in both offensive and defensive efficiency. While the Cougars haven’t played the toughest schedule, they’ve largely waltzed through it, and are 21-3.
Junior Quentin Grimes is their leading scorer (17.9 points per game) and can go nuclear in an instant. He’s the kind of guy who can carry a team in tournament games. Fellow guards Marcus Sasser and DeJon Jarreau also help shoulder the load on offense.
More than anything, the Cougars defend. They’re holding opponents to the lowest effective field goal percentage in the country. They make everything difficult for opponents, and on the offensive end they can shoot and hit free throws. While they’re a bit undersized, the Cougars are a well-coached, well-balanced team that will be scary in the tournament.
San Diego State
Somehow, Brian Dutcher has managed to replicate Steve Fisher’s wild success at San Diego State and even begin to surpass his predecessor. The Aztecs are fantastic this season, despite losing leading scorer Malachi Flynn to the NBA draft and third-leading scorer Yanni Wetzell to graduation. SDSU is 20-4 this season and won a Mountain West title with a balanced attack and some ferocious defense.
The 19th-ranked Aztecs are also 19th on KenPom, and are eighth in defensive efficiency. They lag a bit in offensive efficiency (48th), but shoot the lights out from beyon the arc as a team (38.0 percent), don’t turn the ball over, and rank 60th in effective field goal percentage (52.9 percent). A team that plays dogged defense and can shoot will always be dangerous in the tournament. The Aztecs are also loaded with veterans still upset they missed out on the tournament last year when they were 30-2 and ranked sixth in the country.
Seniors Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel lead the team, while massive junior forward Nathan Mensah patrols the paint. It’s a balanced team that has all the ingredients to make a deep tournament run. The Aztecs suffered back-to-back losses to Utah State in mid-January and haven’t dropped a game since. They’re on an 11-game winning streak, but for some reason, people seem to have forgotten just how good this team is.
Tom Izzo has pulled a rabbit out of his hat late in the season and his Michigan State Spartans are on a roll. Michigan State won its first six games of the campaign, then went in the tank, losing 9 of their next 13, but two of those wins were over Nebraska and one came against Penn State, both horrific teams. Since then, the Spartans are on fire, having won five of seven, including victories over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan, all of whom are currently ranked in the top 10 (Illinois is No. 3 and Michigan is No. 4).
Michigan State struggled to find adequate guard play after four years with Cassius Winston running things. They instead relied heavily on Aaron Henry to get them out of jams when the offense broke down. That said, in their current streak, they’ve proven to be a balanced team, getting solid contributions from Joey Hauser, Josh Langford, Rocket Watts and sharpshooter Gabe Brown.
After a huge upset win over Michigan on Sunday, Sparty’s star is on the rise. Michigan State is solidly in the tournament. Given Izzo’s track record, the vast improvement the team has shown over the last month, Henry’s big play ability and the veteran presence of Hauser and Langford, this team could surprise people later in the month. Don’t count them out as a big-time sleeper.
The Big 12 is loaded this year. With Baylor, Kansas, Texas and West Virginia taking up all the oxygen in the room, 18-7 Oklahoma State has flown under the radar. But everyone should keep their eyes on the 12th-ranked Cowboys this month, as they could be poised to make a big run.
OSU ranks 36th in KenPom and is 63rd in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but they do have one big thing going for them. Freshman Cade Cunningham is the best player in the country and will likely be the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. While he missed Saturday’s win over West Virginia due to an ankle injury, he’ll almost certainly play in the tournament.
Cunningham is a beast, a point-forward at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, there’s very little he can’t do on a basketball court. This season he’s averaging 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point range. He has a decent, balanced squad around him, but let’s be real, this is all about Cunningham. It wouldn’t be shocking if he led a Carmelo Anthony-like charge through the tournament.
Dan Hurley’s squad can play and, now at full strength, is starting to show what it can do. The Huskies are 14-6 and have won four straight, more importantly they’re now 10-2 when star James Bouknight suits up. Bouknight had elbow surgery in January, and was finally cleared in mid-February. Since his return, UConn is 5-1 with several convincing wins and a lone loss at Villanova.
Bouknight is a potential lottery pick who can get hot quickly. The sophomore is averaging 20.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. But he’s not a lone solider out there. The Huskies rank 24th in KenPom and are 25th in offensive efficiency and 29th in defensive efficiency. Defensively, they don’t allow opponents to hit shots, as they’re holding foes to an effective field goal percentage of 46.8.
With Bouknight fully-healthy, UConn could easily make a big run in the tournament. He’s the kind of high-level guard who can carry a team. But the Huskies guard and have enough around him to step up if he goes cold on offense. They’re a team to watch this month.